By R. D. Flavin
CNN's and The Daily Mail's pics of Du'a Khalil Aswad before the "honor killling."
Du’a Khalil Aswad (var. Doaa Aswad Dekhil) was stoned to death more than a month and a half ago, around April 7, 2007, but reports are inexact. She was 17 years old, followed the non-Islamic Kurdish Yezidi religion (said to worship the 'Devil'), had a relationship with a young Kurdish Muslim man, several male relatives became outraged and they killed her in front of a large crowd of Yezidis, local Kurdish police and members of the Iraqi Security Force. The public execution only became media fodder after the Internet posting of a video taken with a cell-phone. A couple of written accounts claim she'd converted to Islam. Though this is almost ancient history, as Matt Drudge immediately featured different hyperlinks to the video, and some websites have refused to host the sad and sick footage. Now, to accompany a story about several arrests, CNN has obtained a copy and features an edited version of the snuff film. Some regard the murder as an “honor killing,” most would term the event and those who took part as evil, and not enough folks seem to be able to get past the 'us' and 'them' and imagine casting the first stone. We've always been our own worst enemy. It doesn’t require the permission of an ethicist to be grateful that Don Imus is no longer on the air to describe the 17 year-old young woman. [Note: While YouTube, MySpace and other video-hosting providers have removed the execution film, it remains online at a reputable education website, though I can’t bring myself to recommend the URL (i.e. web-address) that features the video. And, I strongly caution against seeking it out.]
Image from cell-phone video of the "honor killling" of a Kurdish Yezidi young woman in Iraq.
It’s been suggested that the death of Aswad may have inspired the recent murders of twenty-three Yezidi men. A bus returning workers home from a Mosul weaving factory to their nearby village of Bashika was stopped by men with guns in several cars on April 23, 2007. Muslims and "Assyrian" Christians were separated, ordered to leave, and the bus was driven to a remote section of Mosul where the Yezidi men were stood against a wall and shot. Street demonstrations followed for a couple of days in Bashika and hundreds of Yezidi students reportedly left the University of Mosul for their home towns because of safety concerns. The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has condemned the murders.
While it’s not a great stretch to connect the horrible crimes, a much easier explanation is the ongoing cycle of religious intolerance, violence against women, and basic human rights violations in Iraq. In early February 2007, another “honor killing” took place in Sheikhan (forty miles north of Mosul), after a Kurdish Muslim woman left her husband’s home when he threatened to kill her and accepted an automobile ride from a Kurdish Yezidi man, said to have been an officer in the Asayesh (var. Asayish), the Kurdish intelligence and security agency. The woman was eventually found and stoned to death for allegedly bringing dishonor to her family. Fearful of losing his life, the Yezidi man took sanctuary in the private home of a spiritual leader, Tahsin Sayid Beg, sometimes referred to as a “Prince.” Sheikhan’s Kurdish Muslims rioted, burned down Yezidi buildings and fired “dozens of rounds” of bullets into Tahsin Beg’s home. A radical Islamic web-site posts the approval of the Mujahedeen Shura Council (a.k.a. Ansar al-Islam, Al-Qaeda in Iraq, and the Islamic State of Iraq) of a 2006 assassination of an Asayesh officer. I’m unsure of the fate of the Kurdish Yezidi man, though if he’s still alive, the young officer from Sheikhan is probably not sleeping too well.
Map of main Kurdish populations and Yezidi peacock angel symbol.
In my April 2003 column, “Kurds in the Way?” I wrote:
Next to the Hittites, in eastern Anatolia and northern Mesopotamia, the Hurrians emerged as a non-Indo-European and non-Semitic people of significance. It’s thought that the Hurrians, acting as intermediaries for others, introduced and popularized the use of the horse in the Near East. Though possessing a language and literature of their own (some have suggested that at least three of the letters of the Ugarit cuneiform alphabet were invented for Hurrian), according to archaeological discoveries they were apparently classy enough to collect various copies of the Gilgamish epic. The Hurrians will probably always remain a somewhat mysterious people, as their hold on history slipped away before 1000 BCE. Fortunately, they had family that survived.
The Urartu (or Urartians) were kin to the Hurrians, first named as the Uruartri by the Assyrians c. 1274 BCE., adopted the cuneiform script by 900 BCE, and enjoyed an independent state until being conquered by the Indo-Aryan Medes, supported by Babylon, c. 609 BCE. The Urartu are known from numerous historical texts and also from Hebrew scripture. Yeah, scripture. A Greek mistranslation of the Hebrew rrt as Ararat instead of Urartu has caused much misunderstanding and confusion, as has the Latin mistranslation of Ararat as Armenia. Muddling matters further, some linguists refer to the Urartian language as Chaldean (see: Extinct Languages by Johannes Friedrich, 1957; New York: Philosophical Library; p. 81), which is more than a little ironic as the (Neo) Babylonians who encouraged the Medes in the destruction of Urartu fortresses are usually designated as the Chaldean kings of Babylon (626-539 BCE).
The Kurds hold that they are descendants of the Medes who conquered the Urartu, though more likely is a jump into a shared gene-pool by both. [Note: There are suggestions that current Kurdish tattoos share designs with Urartu motifs, but a clear argument has yet to be presented.] With Alexander arrived a Greek take on civilization, subsequently wrestled away by the Romans, who then witnessed the rise and spread of Christendom and the conversion of the Armenians by St. Gregory in 301 CE. The local population who lived in northern Mesopotamia, at the time, resisted Christianity and retained pagan beliefs from Urartian, Median (pre-Zoroastrian Indo-Aryan), and Zoroastrian and associated influences. Pagans. Good times. All that changed under Islam.
With the arrival of Islam many Kurds died, some became Muslim and some remarkably stayed alive while remaining pagan. The Yezidis are Kurds who practice a 'Cult of Angels' (perhaps from Ized "angels" and Yazata "worthy of worship," words found in the Pahlavi [Persian] version of the Zoroastrian scriptures, the Zend-Avesta [from Zainti, Pahlavi for “explanation of” and Avesta, a collection of writings attributed to Zoroaster]). There’s a single, impersonal god, and a heptad of seven angels (sometimes seven “light” angels and seven “dark” angels, suggesting the dualism of Zoroastrianism). Well, that’s one origin for the Yezidis. Many Muslims have another.
After Mohammed died, there was some deadly jostling for succession. Abu Bakr, the father-in-law of Mohammed, was chosen over Ali, cousin and son-in-law to Mohammed, by marriage to Mohammed's daughter, Fatima. Abu Bakr died after a couple of years and Umar, an early convert to Islam, was able to establish himself as caliph. Umar was soon followed by Uthman, a rich aristocrat from Mecca. Uthman was assassinated in 656 CE and Ali finally got his chance at the caliphate. In a bloodless power struggle, Ali lost the caliphate to Muawiyah. Islam was soon governed from Damascus and Ali was assassinated in 661 CE. The only major schism in Islam then occurred, as the Shiite (shiat Ali, Arabic for "followers of Ali," who claim the caliphate should have passed to Ali’s heirs) split from the Sunni (sunna or "tradition"), the far more numerous rest of Islam. At the Battle of Karbala in 680 CE, Hussein, the second son of Ali (being the grandson of Mohammed), was killed by the followers of the Umayyad Caliph Yazid, the son of Muawiyah. Many Muslims believe that the Yezidis worship Yazid for killing Hussein. It’s not true, of course, but it’s been a convenient excuse for some Muslims to kill Kurds for a long time. Hussein. Kurds. Bad times. [Note: It remains cruel kismet that the most famous of all Kurds, Salah ad-Din Yusuf ibn Ayyub ("Saladin"), who took Jerusalem and provoked the Third Crusade, was born in Tikrît, also the birthplace and hometown of Saddam Hussein.]
Islamic scripture mandates
treatment of the “People of the Book,” that is to say, Hebrews and
but the Kurds in the early days of Islam had no scripture to examine,
their traditions were orally communicated and not written down, and
weren’t afforded “People of the Book” status. Yet, they
in their pagan ways and stayed alive. They adapted and stayed
The Kurds absorbed exterior influences while strengthening an interior
and distinct ethnic identity. Some may regard the Kurds as
a syncretic system of various traditions (unknown indigenous Copper Age
eastern Anatolian and northern Mesopotamian, Bronze Age Hurrian and
Age Urartian, Median (pre-Zoroastrian Indo-Aryan), Hebrew,
and associated movements, Greek, Roman, Christian, and Islam), but a
metaphor would be a stock-pot with the broth being enriched by new
And, most importantly, they stayed alive.
Under “evil,” the Oxford English Dictionary (online edition), has:
A. adj. The antithesis of GOOD in all its principal senses.
In OE., as in all the other early Teut. langs. exc. Scandinavian, this word is the most comprehensive adjectival expression of disapproval, dislike, or disparagement. In mod. colloquial Eng. it is little used, such currency as it has being due to literary influence. In quite familiar speech the adj. is commonly superseded by bad; the n. is somewhat more frequent, but chiefly in the widest senses, the more specific senses being expressed by other words, as harm, injury, misfortune, disease, etc.
From the Oxford English Dictionary Online (forthcoming 3rd Edition).
The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (Fourth Edition, 2000) under the entry for ‘wap-’, the Indo-European root of “evil,” explains: "Bad, evil. Oldest form *2wap-. Suffixed zero-grade form *up-elo-. evil, from Old English yfel, evil, from Germanic *ubilaz, evil. (Not in Pokorny; compare Hittite uwapp-, evil.)." And, ...cue the “I’m just the messenger” qualifier–see: Julius Pokorny's Indogermanisches etymologisches Wörterbuch (1959 Bern: Francke).
It’s another excruciating example of Godwin’s Law. Calling someone a “devil-worshiper” summarily ends half, if not all of any further discussion. It can’t get worse... Casual mentions of the 12 year-old Taliban kid who beheaded a so-called “confederate” in public, the Virginia Tech rampage, and the recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling on intact dilation and extraction procedures ("partial birth abortion"), shouldn’t involve the invocation of any 'devil', though perhaps a required exposition on the all too human behavioral capacity for ‘evil’ could assist. But, the choice is for anyone to make. Details and a “Devil” may be related, but all choices will eventually and irrevocably determine our future discussions, experiments and how we are remembered when our immediacies are necessarily superceded by those who will follow us.
Confronting the eventuality of choice calls to mind the 1961 obedience experiment of the Yale University psychologist, Dr. Stanley Milgram (Milgram 1963). Internal evidence in Milgram’s paper suggests, and is stated explicitly in a later book on obedience (Milgram 1974), that current news events greatly contributed to a pre-existing scientific curiosity regarding obedience, that is, the 1960 capture, the 1961 trial and the 1962 execution of the Nazi war criminal, Adolph Eichmann. A 1958 work by the political theorist, Hannah Arendt, on ‘authority’ is cited by Milgram and it wouldn't be too forward to propose that Milgram followed Arendt’s 1961-1962 series of articles on Eichmann published in The New Yorker Magazine, which were collected and rewritten for her controversial and best-selling book, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (Arendt 1963).
Evil in a Box - 1961's trial of Adolph Eichmann in Israel.
At the 131st American Association for the Advancement of Science Annual Meeting held December 26-31, 1964 in Montreal, Canada, Dr. Milgram was awarded the Socio-Psychological Prize for his work on obedience. By coincidence, a couple of months later pre-production work began on the first episode of Hogan's Heroes, a television situation comedy, which premiered September 17, 1965. The farce became a popular hit (the show ran until 1971) and the Nazi characters were portrayed as sympathetic bumpkins ...merely following orders. Reality, ever so tragically, is never far removed and the concept of obedience to authority soon became even more conversationally current. The Humanist slogan, “Question authority,” became a rallying cry with the late 1960s’ ‘Countercultural Revolution’, which in part was a reaction to the war in Viet Nam. That police action produced the infamous 1968 My Lai Massacre with U.S. Army soldiers saying, much like Nazis had decades before (and Eichmann in 1962), that they were just ...following orders.
Dr. Stanley Milrgram, subject from 1965's Obedience film, 1968's My Lai massacre, and Lt. William H. Calley.
Dr. Milgram’s work on obedience is arguably the most critical (i.e. decisive and crucial) experiment of recent times not because of the possible insight which it brings to understanding genocide or war crimes (though it does), but rather its discussion forces us to look at ourselves with a paraphrasing of the words by the English Protestant martyr (later burned at the stake as a heretic), John Bradford, “There, but for the grace of God, go I...” Milgram’s work has continuous relevance as we all encounter directly or indirectly obedience to real or imagined authority both secular and sacred.
On August 14, 1971, a prison simulation experiment began in the basement of a Stanford University Psychology Department building which involved twenty-one (plus three alternative) undergraduate students selected from colleges in the U.S. and Canada (Zimbardo 1973). Students were financially compensated for role-playing as guards and prisoners (Haney, Banks, and Zimbardo 1973a). The simulation experiment was funded by the U. S. Office of Naval Research, who were seeking answers to problems of anti-social behavior in military prisons, and conducted by a research team led by Dr. Philip G. Zimbardo (by happenstance, a high school classmate of Milgram's). The experiment was stopped on August 21, 1971 and did not reach its projected study length of two weeks (Haney, Banks, and Zimbardo 1973b). Of the ten students who were role-playing prisoners who began the experiment, half subsequently complained of emotional problems which led to their early release. Of the eleven role-playing guards, at least a third became too aggressive and initiated dehumanizing punishment against their fellow students. Dr. Zimbardo has stated that the experiment was not “Bubba Psychology” and added something new to science (Zimbardo 1973, p. 250). It may be assumed that Zimbardo has a pre-existing social conflict with someone named Bubba, who may or might nonetheless agree along with many others that the results of the prison simulation experiment were profoundly disturbing and important.
Zimbardo on The Daily Show, 1971's Stanford Prison Experiment, ca. 2003 Satar Jabar at Abu Ghraib prison, and cover of The Lucifer Effect.
Two months after the experiment, Zimbardo testified before Congress about the study and his findings (Zimbardo 1971). He later commented that the Chairman of the Senate sub-committee convened to investigate problems of justice and detention procedures for juvenile offenders, Sen. Birch Evans Bayh II (D, IN; 1963-1981) experienced “a significant impact on his thinking (Zimbardo 1973, p. 251).” Sen. Bayh went on to lose his political seat to J. Danforth Quayle in 1981. As Dr. Zimbardo indicated just two years after the experiment (ibid), immediate mass media coverage included 20 mins. on NBC-TV's Chronolog, 10 mins. on NET-Public Television of an AAAS panel on prisons, 12 mins. on CBS-TV (Los Angeles), a variety of local TV and radio programs, a feature story in Life Magazine, a review in the 4-8-73 New York Times Magazine, and articles and editorials in over 100 other newspapers in the U.S. and across the globe. Zimbardo testified as an expert witness for the defense of one of the accused 372nd Military Police Company guards who served at Abu Ghraib prison, Army Reserve Staff Sgt. Ivan "Chip" Frederick, who was afterwards sentenced to eight years in prison, rank reduction, loss of all pay, and received a dishonorable discharge. Linking his prison simulation experiment with the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse, Zimbardo has written The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil (Zimbardo 2007).
The American Heritage College Dictionary (AHCD 1997, p. 1610) informs us that the Indo-European verbal root of our word ‘experiment’ is: “per-³. Important derivatives are fear, peril, experience, expert, pirate, and empire. per-³. To try, risk (< ‘to lead over,’ ‘press forward’).” These modern English terms, culled from words in Old English, Germanic, Latin and Greek, may be associated with several notable psychological 'experiments' – the ‘fear’ and the bear analogy by William James (James 1884), ‘peril’ and how a very young child was subjected to scare-tactics by the Behaviorist, John B. Watson (Watson & Rayner 1920), the Neo-Bahavorist, B. F. Skinner, as a media ‘expert’ (Skinner 1939, 1941, 1947), the U.S. government 's Project MK-ULTRA funded psychiatrist, D. Ewen Cameron at Canada's McGill Universty, as a ‘pirate’ who robbed patients of their past (Cameron 1956, 1957; Gillmor 1987), and ‘empire’ as the government of your choice.
We now, sadly, have the official NATO term, HUMINT (intelligence based on information extracted from human sources; HUman INTelligence), and the U.S. government’s contracting of private sector HETs (Human Exploitation Teams) for interrogation and torture in Afghanistan and Iraq. Our discussions will continue, as we don’t yet know enough, and we must be ever vigilant that friend and foe or animal and human test subjects are always afforded the best of rights and protection. We should continue to learn from experiment, to try, risk...
Change and re-definition are constant. That said, some status quo achievements are sufferable, while others ...are not. In India, evil men burn their women, in Africa they take machetes to them, in the Middle East they cast stones, while in America ...we open a can of Bud, chug, and while tossing the empty and reaching for another, slap the wife for ...not having another Bud ready. Why can’t others follow America and get drunk and slap around their women rather than burn, cut or toss rocks at them? Am I missing something, here? Evil is as ‘evil’ does, kind of like we change the rules of the U.S. Constitution when needed, and ...questioning authority, it’s recommended that we all think for ourselves. A “Devil” or personification of ‘evil’ needn’t be mythological or a media slur, it could be simply ...a choice. Remember choices?
Willard Mitt Romney.
AHCD. 1997. Entry under per-³ in 'Appendix I: Indo-European Roots’. The American Heritage College Dictionary. Third edition. Boston, MA:
Houghton Mifflin Company.
Arendt, Hannah. 1963. Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. New York: Viking Press.
James, William. 1884. “What is an Emotion?” Mind. 9: 188-204.
Cameron, D. Ewen. 1956. “Psychic Driving.” American Journal of Psychiatry. 112: 502-509.
Cameron, D. Ewen. 1957. “Psychic Driving: Dynamic Implant.” Psychiatric Quarterly. 31: 703-712.
Gillmor, Don. 1987. I Swear by Apollo: Dr. Ewen Cameron and the CIA-Brainwashing Experiments. Montreal: Eden.
Haney, C., Banks, W. C., and Zimbardo, P. G. 1973a. “Interpersonal Dynamics in a Simulated Prison. International Journal of Criminology and
Penology. 1: 69–97.
Haney, C., Banks, W. C., and Zimbardo, P. G. 1973b. “Study of Prisoners and Guards in a Simulated Prison.” Naval Research Reviews. 9:
1–17. Washington, DC: Office of Naval Research. Online at: http://www.holah.karoo.net/zimbardostudy.htm.
Milgram, Stanley. 1963. “Behavioral Study of Obedience.” Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology. 67, 4: 371-378.
Milgram, Stanley. 1974. Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View. New York: Harper & Row.
Skinner, B. F. 1939. “The Alliteration in Shakespeare's Sonnets: A Study in Literary Behavior.” Psychological Record. 3: 186-92.
Skinner, B. F. 1941. “A Quantitative Estimate of Certain Types of Sound-Patterning in Poetry.” American Journal of Psychology. 54: 64-79.
Skinner, B. F. 1947. “‘Psi’ and Its Manifestations: (a review of) The Reach of the Mind by J. B. Rhine.” New York Times. Nov. 2, BR: 34.
Watson, John B. & Rosalie Rayner. 1920. "Conditioned Emotional Reactions." Journal of Experimental Psychology. 3,1: 1-14. Online at:
Zimbardo, Philip G. 1971. “‘The Power and Pathology of Imprisonment’– Hearings before Subcommittee No. 3, of the Committee on the
Judiciary, House of Representatives, Ninety-Second Congress, First Session on Corrections, Pt. II, Prisons, Prison Reform and Prisoner's
Rights: California.” Congressional Record (15: 1971-10-25). Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.
Zimbardo, Philip G. 1973. “On the Ethics of Intervention in Human Psychological Research: With Special Reference to the Stanford Prison
Experiment.” Cognition. 2, 2: 243-256.
Zimbardo, Philip G. 2007. The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil. New York: Random House.
The Iranian and Kurdish Women's Rights Organization
ICAHK - International Campaign Against Honor Killings
United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and Human Rights
Amnesty International - Iraq: People Come First
Official Vatican Response on Mormon Baptism
Space Adventures, Inc.
Trying to SMI²LE,